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Pitt’s Justin Champagnie Could Be the X Factor vs. Syracuse’s Zone



PITTSBURGH — It would be fair to say that Pitt basketball has lacked a little bit of everything over the past few seasons. But when you think of Pitt vs. Syracuse, you think of Pitt having a guy who can operate in the middle of that well-known Syracuse 2-3 zone defense.

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Ex-Panthers such as Jamel Artis and Sam Young did the heavy lifting from that spot. Pitt has needed another one of those steady, all-important guys on the floor.

But now, second-year head coach Jeff Capel just may have found one of his own to play that role.

And that’s Justin Champagnie.

Pitt’s last win vs. the Orange was Feb. 11, 2017, at the Pete, and their previous win at the Carrier Dome was in the 2015-16 season. The Panthers’ defeated Syracuse three times that season.

Saturday’s game between these two old Big East enemies has some throwback feel to it. Pitt (13-6, 4-4 ACC) and Syracuse (12-7, 5-3 ACC) are each on four-game conference win streaks.

These are two teams that like to play two different styles – on both ends of the floor. Syracuse shoots a ton of 3-pointers, while Pitt attacks the rim. Syracuse forces you to think a little more with their 2-3 zone, and Pitt likes to pressure the ball with suffocating man-to-man defense.

Even though Pitt hasn’t seen as much zone this season as you might think, they do have one guy that is excited about going up against it – and that’s Champagnie.

“I’m good (against) zone,” The 6-foot-6 versatile wing said. “Just try to pick out the open areas, and just attack from there, don’t dribble the ball as much. Just move it around and get the zone moving. The backside lob will be open and the middle. It’s just about picking the right areas to play from.”

Most likely, Champagnie will be placed in that middle/foul line area for much of the game. But he hasn’t seen a zone quite as polished as the one Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has been putting out on the hardwood for 44 years.

The Panthers’ freshman will surely have a slight learning curve, and he’s prepared to adapt.

“I can’t just shoot ill-advised shots,” Champagnie said about having a big role against the zone. “I think if I play my cards right, and read the defense right, I’ll play a significant role in (our offense).

On the other side of the ball, Pitt is going to have their hands full with a streaky Syracuse offense.

Syracuse is scoring nearly 74 points per game this year, while Pitt’s defense is holding opponents to only 61.7 per contest.

Syracuse junior guard Elijah Hughes is leading the ACC in scoring with 19.7 points per game. Hughes also makes a conference-best three made 3-pointers per game.

And it’s not just Hughes that can shoot the rock. Syracuse relies on scoring from their other two guards, Buddy Boeheim and Joe Girard. Those three have combined for 167 made 3-pointers this season.

To put that into perspective, Pitt’s five guards Trey McGowens, Xavier Johnson, Ryan Murphy, Au’Diese Toney, and Champagnie, have combined for only 101 makes.

But the Panthers are ready for the challenge of slowing down the Orange’s hot shooting and will try to grind the game out the old school way.

“We feel like no one has really gotten after them in a way where they fumble the ball and can’t really run their offense,” Champagnie said. “I feel like if we put pressure on them, they will just cough the ball up. That’s the game plan, to put pressure.”

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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